In light of the recent controversy over the Dutch Magazine, Jackie’s ignorant article on Rihanna, in which she was called “de niggabitch” (reminiscent of the term “negro wench“), I decided to give my two cents on how I feel about the word. When I was younger, I was completely against the use of the word. I thought that it should never be said, either with the “er” or the “a.” However, I have realized now that it much more complicated than simply not saying it and I can understand both sides. There is not a clear answer to how to use the word.
I understand those who are against the use of the word. It was a word that was used against black people; a word that was meant to degrade them. N***er was one of the last words a black person might hear before they were lynched or murdered. The word was probably a bastardization of “negro,” which means black, a word that was labeled as bad. I agree that the over-usage of it does desensitize us in some ways and changing the word slightly does fully negate that cultural memory.
However, I understand the other side as well. Since it is a word used against us, we have the right to take it back for ourselves and only for ourselves. I find it very irritating when other races wonder why they can’t say a word that we say because that statement shows a lack of cultural sensitivity and historical knowledge. My question for them is why do you want to say it so much when it is not about you. With globalization and commercialization, the cultural and historical context is often lost and without someone to educate other cultures inside and outside of America about it, nuanced discussions are hindered.
For example, the changing of the ending of the word from “er” to “a.” The story of the “signifying monkey” is often mentioned as an important part of black culture and language development. We like to play on words and often that play on words is how we deal with our situations. One of the jazz musicians who influenced rap music was Cab Calloway. Cab Calloway put together the Hepster’s Dictionary and it shows black cultural use of metaphors, double meanings, and other figurative language skills (“bad” equals good). From that viewpoint, it is easy to see why some of us find it okay to change the word to have a different meaning, but only within our own cultural context (the intention seems different from people within our own group versus people outside of it).
Moreover, I often feel that some of us are blaming ourselves by saying that we need to stop saying the word for others to stop saying it. It is a naive viewpoint. In the past, whatever we did, whether it was act more like the dominant group or act more like our own cultural group, did not change how others viewed us. It should not be solely our responsibility to make others respect us when the problem did not start with us. Often when people use that excuse of us saying the word, too, it seems like a cop out to avoid any accountability or questioning of themselves.
Declaring the word dead or saying that we should not say it at all, sweeps that history under the rug. Earlier this year, a huge uproar over the removal of the n-word from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was all over the news. What was the point of removing the word from the book? It is a part of history and the best way to handle it is to have dialogue about it and educate others about it. Censoring the word is not going to stop others from thinking it, and believing the prejudiced views that created the word.